Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn’t so much haunted by the past as possessed by it

There are always risks in raising the dead and, after 2016’s well-intentioned but over-eager misfire, you could have been forgiven for assuming the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise would forever more rest in peace. Of course, in the hands of Sony, nothing beloved is sacred or safe and so, inevitably, Ray Parker Jr’s iconically spooky synth riff rises from the grave to bring us GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE and a new generation of Ghostbusters. It’s not the only generational touch either, as our medium for this cinematic séance is none other than Jason Reitman, son of the legendary director of GHOSTBUSTERS (and somewhat less legendary director of GHOSTBUSTERS II) Ivan Reitman.

Arriving in the seemingly unremarkable town of Summerville, Oklahoma, Callie (Carrie Coon) and her children Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), take up residence at the dilapidated old farmhouse inherited from her estranged father, Egon Spengler. As the grandchildren begin to explore and uncover their grandfather’s legacy, a series of tremors shake the town, attracting the attention of seismologist Gary Grooberson. Together with locals Podcast (Logan Kim) and Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), the Spengler family unravel a mystery that stretches back to New York 1984 and beyond.

At its heart, GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE isn’t really a story about ghosts so much as a fable of family, loss, and rediscovery, evoking much more of a Spielbergian vibe than the spectral hijinks of its predecessors. It’s this narrative pivot that injects the film with an emotional depth perhaps unexpected in a franchise entry that feels ever so slightly cynical and exploitative and ultimately carries it over those times where its eagerness to remind you of things you loved before makes SOUTH PARK’s memberberries look like paragons of subtlety and restraint.

Director Jason Reitman, taking up the mantle from his father, Ivan, does try to strike a balance between reverence to the original and exploring new territory. The plot is saturated with blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em callbacks but he centres the film on the family grappling with their grandfather’s legacy as they stumble upon the ghostbusting tech of yore. Herein lies the Spielberg touch: the focus is on the emotional journey of its characters, with the supernatural shenanigans the colourful backdrop.

Paul Rudd brings just enough of the knowingly sardonic air of a Bill Murray or Dan Aykroyd, as the quirky seismologist and summer school teacher, carrying an in-universe enthusiasm for classic Ghostbusters memorabilia that’s contagious and plays well off the enthusiastic young cast, particularly the spirited McKenna Grace and the frankly adorable Logan Kim. Carrie Coon on the other hand, while delivering a solid performance, seems a tad underutilized, adrift in a sea of spectres and science and more there to check off a particularly important plot point towards the end of the movie.

The film’s over reliance on the iconography of the original Ghostbusters—complete with the return of its endgame villain—elicits mixed feelings. It’s a cosy blanket of familiarity, yet one can’t help but yearn for the thrill of the unknown. This conservative approach to its past often feels like its holding back its future, echoing a reluctance to stray too far from the proven formula and slightly dims the shine of its innovations. For every organic callback, there’s a forced one: the mini Staypuft marshmallow men are adorable but there is no diegetic reason for them to appear. It’s pure fan service.

GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE ultimately sets out to explore the dangers of raising the dead, both literally and metaphorically. As Stephen King put it in PET SEMATARY, and as 2016 showed, “sometimes they come back wrong”. This time, enough comes back right that you can forgive its craven indulgences in gratuitous nostalgia because the new stuff is pretty good in its own right and, surprisingly, the heartfelt tribute to the late Harold Ramis, which could so easily have felt crass and schmaltzy, actually works.

When it embraces the possibilities of the future, GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE is noticeably stronger and as long as it can avoid falling into the trap of crossing its timestreams too much to linger too long in the past, its youthful cast and thoughtful updates to the lore and iconography of cast should breathe new life into the franchise. Then again, AFTERLIFE puts the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise exactly where THE FORCE AWAKENS did STAR WARS…and we all know how that turned out.

ghostbusters afterlife review
Score 7/10
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